A couple of privacy stories have been making big news over the last few days. The first is the ‘celebrity photo’ saga – naked photos of Jennifer Lawrence and others have been ‘leaked’ onto the net. The second is the revelation that the Metropolitan Police obtained the telephone records of Tom Newton Dunn, the political editor of the Sun, in connection with the ‘Plebgate’ saga. Between them, the two stories highlight some of the ways in which privacy matters – and at the same time some of the misunderstandings, some of the hypocrisy, and some of the complexity of privacy.
Celebrities and privacy
The relationship between celebrities and privacy is a complex one. At one level – the level usually argued by the press (including the Sun) – celebrities have less of a right to privacy than the rest of us. After all, they put themselves in the public eye. They open their doors to the likes of Hello magazine – and they make millions from us, from our attention, so doesn’t that mean they have to sacrifice a bit of their privacy to us? The put themselves in the public eye – doesn’t that mean their lives are ‘public’, and drawing attention to them is in the ‘public interest’? This brings into play the classic question of what the difference is between what ‘interests the public’ and what is ‘in the public interest’. They’re certainly not identical – but there is a degree of fuzziness at times.
At another level – the level argued by the celebrities themselves – celebrities need more protection, and if not a stronger right of privacy then a stronger way to enforce that right than the rest of us. After all, celebrities are more likely to have their private lives intruded upon by the press. Paparazzi will point their long lenses into celebrity houses, pursue celebrities down the street, rifle through celebrities’ dustbins, much more than they will for the rest of us. A naked picture of Jennifer Lawrence will get a lot more clicks on the net than a naked picture of a ‘non-celebrity’. The phone hacking saga (of which more later) is just one example – and it’s no coincidence that many of those at the forefront of the campaign to implement the Leveson report are celebrities such as Hugh Grant and Steve Coogan.
There’s strength in both perspectives – and as both are regularly argued by people who are both articulate and very ‘media-savvy’ it is often hard to navigate between them. The courts try – but all too often, whatever they decide is damned by one side or the other.
The Press and Privacy
The Sun are justifiably angry about the revelation that their political editor’s phone records have been accessed by the Metropolitan Police – not least because the story being investigated actually concerned the activities of the police. There are conflicts of interest all over the place here – but also a much bigger point.
For the press to function well, it needs to have privacy. That is, it needs to be possible for the press to keep its sources secret, to protect those people who reveal the key information. If they can’t protect their sources, there’s a very direct chilling effect – people who might come forward with information will be afraid to do so, so that information will never be uncovered, and all kinds of stories that are very much in the public interest will never see the light of day. Members of the press need to have confidentiality – so that they are able to do their job, a critical job in holding the powerful to account. That means the police and the politicians for a start.
Hypocrisy and Privacy
And yet, the stench of hypocrisy is almost overwhelming here. This is the Sun, getting outraged about a breach in privacy. The same Sun who were part of the phone hacking saga, who regularly invade the privacy of all and sundry – celebrities are just one example – often claiming it is in the public interest, but still invading privacy. The same Sun who were part of an often vicious onslaught on the Guardian in connection with the Snowden revelations. The Sun who often seem to operate as though no-one has any right to privacy – except their own journalists.
This kind of hypocrisy is matched by that of some of the hackers and champions of internet freedom who feel it’s OK to obtain and then release, gleefully, naked pictures of Jennifer Lawrence. Some seem to want their own anonymity and privacy, and think the NSA and GCHQ are nightmarish oppressors – but think that Jennifer Lawrence only has herself to blame for even having those photographs in the first place.
It’s a sadly common set of double standards – privacy doesn’t seem very important, indeed it often seems like something bad (‘privacy is for paedos’, in the words of Paul McMullan, former News of the World journalist) until it has an impact on you. The Sun’s outrage is particularly hypocritical, but at times almost all of us are guilty of it.
We all need privacy
The truth, at least as I see it, is that we all need privacy. We all need our privacy protected – and invasions of privacy should never be done lightly, without a thought for the consequences. Jennifer Lawrence – and all of us – should be able to take whatever photos we want of ourselves, however intimate. Members of the press should be able to communicate safely and securely with their sources. And we, ordinary people, should be able to go on with our ordinary lives without fear of their being exposed. Our lives aren’t any less important than those of celebrities or the press – and though the impact of privacy invasions on our ordinary lives may not be as earth shattering or newsworthy as those of celebrities, politicians and so forth, to us they matter. The revelation that NSA operatives thought looking at nude and sexual photos found by surveillance was fun, and sharing them with colleagues was just a perk of the job should repel us.
There are many other ways that invasions of our privacy have an impact upon us – things like affecting our job prospects, our insurance premiums, our credit ratings, our relationships – but there’s a bigger point here. These are our lives. This is part of our human dignity. Privacy is part of that, and it matters. We should try to remember that for other people – and celebrities are people too.